Artist Interview: Mary Gibney

Cozy in her workroom on the second floor of her home, Mary Gibney is relaxed and unassuming, as she talks about her work. The orange sherbet-colored walls and glow from several work lamps give the room a calm, but energizing, mood. One large table holds several organized piles of source material for her collages – vintage magazines and other printed ephemera. The wall is covered with images and patterns that she loves. A smaller table is less cluttered.  It supports one large pile of books, more sources of photographs and images, including Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, The Mütter Museum: Of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Weegee’s World and Strange Days, Dangerous Nights: Photos from the Speed Graphic Era by Larry Millet. She eagerly shares these volumes to show me the inspiration for her portraits, like Sideshow Wolfman and Smoking Lady.

Mary Gibney in her workroom

Mary Gibney in her workroom

She sits at her worktable, which is organized with her tools, in front of a work in progress – a brightly colored portrait of a baseball player from the Memphis Red Socks based on a photo borrowed from the book Negro League Baseball, by Ernest Withers.*

“Who’s that?” I ask.

“He’s referred to as an ‘anonymous baseball player,’” she answers, pointing to the photo in the book, “I love his awkward stance and the buildings in the background.”

Mary’s large oeuvre is a testament to the extraordinary in the everyday and the everyday in the extraordinary. Her collages are sometimes whimsical, almost sentimental, like Bashful Bachelor; and, sometimes post-modern, Warholian romps like Asian Marilyn. Her portraits of reused images from Weegee photos and mug shots are colorful, empathetic and funny.

Recently, we shared a conversation about her work, her process, her loves and inspiration.

Mary's table with source material for collages.

Mary’s table with source material for collages.

Kristine Frank Elias: We have talked before about your lifelong vocation of art. Can you discuss that a little?

Mary Gibney: Some of my earliest memories are about creating things, coloring with crayons, that sort of thing. I remember working on a collage portrait when I was in kindergarten. I wanted to make the girl’s hair of curly, yellow yarn. But, I couldn’t get the yarn to stick to the paper right. The glue and yarn were sticking to my fingers, not the paper. I remember staying late to work on it and being really frustrated. That was the first time I conceived a vision that I couldn’t achieve.

But, I’ve always been creating things. A grade-school teacher praised my work in class, saying I could maybe be a commercial artist someday. That meant a lot to me.  And, art class in high school was great. It made me feel grown up because the teacher gave us a lot of autonomy.

So, I continued to study art in college because no one told me not to.

KFE: By the looks of your website, you are always creating things. When do you work? What are your habits for working?

MG: I love that my workroom is right here in the house. It is so accessible. Even when I had a studio in the attic, I had to go up there. Now, it is right here. And, I have everything I need – my computer, my music, the right light, a storage closet.

So, I can work whenever I want. It kind of ebbs and flows. Sometimes, I might work for five minutes, or 20 minutes. It might stretch into three hours, or late into the night.

I must admit, I am motivated by deadlines and tend to get a lot of work done right before a show.

KFE: You’re a painter and a collage artist. I have a particular affinity to collage; I like the recontextualizing and reimagining of the objects and images. What attracts you to collage?

MG: My work in collage started because of my love for ephemera – cool images and scraps. My first collages were terrible; I wanted to put too much stuff in them. You have to be very selective with collage.

I guess I just love the thrill of discovery. And, it is such a playful process. I love the sources people have given me – vintage materials, things that belonged to someone they knew, things that were a part of someone’s life.

The process is about meanings emerging and the relationships between images. I have recently been drawn to images of hands and profiles. Like in Balancing Two Step. The profiles indicate some kind of relationship and the round shapes are about balance, and it all fits with the sheet music, which is a two-step.

But, it is about the meanings and emotion the viewer brings to the piece, too. So, meaning and emotion continue to evolve and emerge. It is very creative.

KFE: It seems to me that your paintings have elements of collage, too. In the Weegee and Mugshot portraits the wood grain adds a layer of texture. And, the images are reused, recycled. Tell about how you choose the images and the colors.

MG: I choose faces that are interesting to me – interesting expressions – or, if they seem to evoke an emotion. I really like working with black and white photos, because then I can choose the colors to achieve the emotion I want. I imagine the mood in the circumstance of the photo and match the colors to that mood.

KFE: The Weegee and Mugshot portraits are really great; people seem very drawn to them. And, there is a lot going on in them. You are recontextualizing these portraits, colorizing them, and, I noticed that you pay close attention to some detail, but neglect other detail. For example, you might depict a hairstyle in a lot of detail, but the nose is just a line drawing. Tell me about those choices.

MG: Yes. I like the abstraction of a curved line or a shape of color. And, I also like to show the paint and the brushwork – I want it to be visible. When I look at other paintings I love to see the process come through on the canvas. I saw the George Bellows show at the Met and it was great. If you look up close at a woman’s high-heeled shoe, the bottom of her foot actually, you can see how he used two brush strokes to make it. So economical and beautiful.

But, sometimes I feel the work is finished when I get to the feeling I want – and, then I am done. And, I enjoy the childlike quality that comes from that style – the line drawing and the flatness. My work tends to be very flat.

KFE: In your last show at One on One Bike, you had a number of Side Show portraits. Again, found images, reused and reimagined. But, the style and the materials were very different. Why the change?

MG: I used gouache on paper for the Side Show portraits. Gouache is easier to correct – you can use a little water, and smudge it and smash it to make corrections. It is fun for creating detail, too.

Also, I was very inspired by Maira Kalman’s book The Principles of Uncertainty. I love the delicate pictures of everyday things – a pink box tied with string, a lady in a big coat. And, I love her running story that accompanies the pictures – this very everyday story. I wanted this type of feeling for the Side Show portraits. I hoped it would give an everyday-ness in these portraits.

I think about these people and I am fascinated by their abnormalities. But, I think they must have been used to it – it was their everyday. Like the Four Legged Girl – she looks like a regular teenager, bored with having to pose. So, I hoped to give them back some humanity, some dignity, through this normalness.

KFE: What’s next?

MG: Well, I have a show coming up at 801 Washington on June 22. I’ll be showing with several other artists, including Lillian Colton’s great crop art. I will be doing some more portraits, maybe some full body shots. Probably some baseball stuff. I bought some larger panels, so some larger format. But, really more of the same.

For a look at all of Mary’s work visit her website:

*Mary also refers to an important influence from Withers’ book The Memphis Blues Again, which includes portraits of blues musicians in Memphis in the 50s, 60s, 70s.


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